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The History Of England

by Peter Williams Ph.D

 

Chapter Four: The Christian Tradition

 

The coming of Christianity overshadows the political achievements of the age. In most of lowland Britain, Latin had become the language of administration and education, especially since Celtic writing was virtually unknown. Latin was also the language of the Church in Rome. The old Celtic gods gave way to the new ones such as Mithras, introduced by the Roman mercenaries; these in turn were replaced when missionaries from Gaul introduced Christianity to the islands.

 

By 3l4, an organized Christian Church seems to have been established in most of Britain, for in that year British bishops were summoned to the Council of Arles. By the end of the fourth century, a diocesan structure had been set up, many districts having come under the pastoral care of a bishop. In the meantime, however, missionaries of the Gospel had been active in the south and east of the land that later became known as Scotland (it was not until the late tenth Century that the name Scotia ceased to be applied to Ireland and become transferred to southwestern Scotland). The first of these was Ninian who probably built his first church (Candida Casa: White House) at Whithorn in Galloway, ministering from there as a traveling bishop and being buried there after his death in 397 A.D. For many centuries his tomb remained a place of pilgrimage, including visits from kings and queens of Scotland.

 

It was during the time of the Saxon invasions, in that relatively unscathed western peninsular that later took the name Wales, that the first monasteries were established (the words Wales and Welsh were used by the Germanic invaders to refer to Romanized Britons). They spread rapidly to Ireland from where missionaries returned to those parts of Britain that were not under the Roman Bishops' jurisdiction, mainly the Northwest (in present day Scotland).

 

The island of Iona is just off the western coast of Argyll. It is been called the "Isle of Dreams" or "Isle of Druids." Columba (Columcille "Dove of the Church") with his small band of Irish monks landed here in 563 A.D. to spread the faith. The missionary saint inaugurated Aidan as king of the new territory of Dalriata (previously settled by men from Columba's own Ulster, in northern Ireland).
Iona was quickly to become the ecclesiastical head of the Celtic Church in the whole of Britain as well as a major political center. The honor later went to Lindisfarne, for after the monastic settlement at Iona gave sanctuary to the exiled Oswald early in the seventh century, the king invited the monks to come to his restored kingdom of Northumbria. It was thus that Aidan, with his twelve disciples, came to Lindisfarne, destined with Iona to become one of the great cultural centers of the early Christian world.

 

In this period, the 5th and 6th Centuries, many Celtic saints were adopted by the rapidly-expanding Church. At the Synod of Whitby in 664, however, the Celtic Church, by majority opinion of the British bishops accepted the rule of St. Peter, introduced by Augustine, rather than of St. Columba. It was thus forced to abandon its own ideas about the consecration of its Bishops, tonsure of its monks, dates for the celebration of Easter and other differences with Rome. Whitby settled matters once and for all as far as the future direction of the Church in England was concerned. From this date on, we can no longer speak of a Celtic Church as distinct from that of Rome. St Augustine had been sent in 597 to convert the pagan English, by Pope Gregory, anxious to spread the Gospel, but also to enhance papal prestige by reclaiming former territories of Rome. Augustine received a favorable reception in the kingdom of Ethelbert, who had married Bertha, daughter of the Merovingian King and a practicing Christian. Augustine's success in effecting a large number of converts led to his consecration as bishop by the end of the year.

 

Pope Gregory had a detailed plan for the administration of the Church in England. There were to be two archbishops: London and York (each to have l2 bishops). As the city of London was not under the control of Ethelbert, however, a new see was chosen at Canterbury, in Kent. It was there that Augustine, now promoted to archbishop, laid down the beginnings of the ecclesiastical organization of the Church in Britain. It was Gregory's guiding hand, however, that influenced all Augustine's decisions; both Pope and Bishop seemed to know little of the Celtic Church, and made no accommodations with it.

 

The establishment of the Church at York was not possible until 625; the immense task of converting and then organizing the converted was mostly beyond the limited powers of Augustine, apparently well-trained in monastic rule, but little trained in law and administration. Edwin of Northumbria's wife chose Paulinus as Bishop, and the see of York was established. Later attacks from the Pagan king Penda of Mercia, however, meant that only a limited kind of Christian worship took place in the North until around the middle of the 8th Century.

 

In 668, when a vacancy arose at Canterbury, the monk Theodore of Tarsus was appointed as archbishop. His background as a Greek scholar meant that he had to take new vows and be ordained in custom with the Church in the West. He then worked diligently to set up the basis of diocesan organization throughout England, ably assisted by another Greek scholar Hadrian (who was familiar with the Western Church) and carrying out decisions made at Whitby. When Theodore arrived at Canterbury, there was one bishop south of the River Humber and two in the North: Cedda, a Celtic bishop: and Wilfred of Ripon, who had argued so successfully for the adoption of the Roman Church at Whitby. Theodore consecrated new bishops at Dulwich, Winchester, and Rochester; and set up the sees of Worcester, Hereford, Oxford and Leicester. At first, Wilfred of Ripon reigned supreme in Northumbria as the exponent of ecclesiastical authority, but when he quarreled with King Ecgfrith, he was sent into exile. Theodore seized his opportunity to break up the North into smaller and more controllable dioceses. Over the next twenty years bishoprics were established at York, Hexham, Ripon, and Lindsey. Theodore also re-established the system of ecclesiastical synods that disregarded any political boundaries.
One of Theodore's great accomplishments was to create the machinery through which the wealth of the Celtic Church was transferred to the Anglo-Saxon Church. This wealth was particularly responsible for the late 7th Century flowering of culture in Northumbria, which benefited from both Celtic and Roman influences.

 

In that northern outpost of the Catholic Church, a tradition of scholarship began that was to have a profound influence on the literature of Western Europe. It constituted a remarkable outbreak with equally remarkable consequences.
At this time, the English Church had an enormous influence on the Continent, where rulers such as Charles Martel and Pepin lll were pursuing aggressive policies against the Germanic tribes. Missionaries from the highly advanced English Church were extensively recruited. Wilfred of Ripon found a new calling after his expulsion from Northumbria, and he and others such as Willibrod carried out their conversions with approval from Rome. The greatest of the missionaries was Boniface, who established many German sees from his new archbishopric at Mainz. From York came Alcuin, one of the period's greatest scholars. All in all, we can say that the Anglo-Saxon Church provided an important impetus for the civilizing of much of the Continent. In particular, it provided the agent for the fusing of Celtic and Roman ideas, and its work in Europe produced events that had repercussions of profound importance.


The scholastic tradition went hand in hand with the religious conversion of the English. It began with a Northumbrian nobleman, Benedict Biscop, who founded two monasteries Wearmouth (674) and Jarrow (68l) that were to play important parts in this culturalexplosion. Biscop made six journeys to Rome, acquiring many valuable manuscripts and beginning what can be termed a golden age in Northumbria. Its greatest scholar was Bede. A theologian as well as an historian, Bede (672-735) spent his life in his monastery at Jarrow. His intense hostility made him a partisan witness when he wrote of the British people, for many of them had retained a form of Roman Christianity which was anathema to him. He called members of the Celtic Church "barbarians," and "a rustic, perfidious race," and is thus regarded by many modern historians (but especially Welsh writers) as a "fancy monger." At the same time, however, we are indebted to the historian for his account of the events that were rapidly changing the political face of Anglo-Saxon England

 

Next Chapter >> An English Political Unity

 

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Chap1 - Chap2 - Chap3 - Chap4 - Chap5

 

This History of England was written by Peter Williams Ph.D. Peter is the author of some fantastic history books which we will soon be recommending on the site. Peter also has a website which is well worth a visit - CelticInfo.com

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